Sibling estrangement: 6 relationship types

Even siblings who talk frequently can experience estrangement. We explore the 6 main relationships types seen in estranged siblings...

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Sibling estrangement: the term conjures images of brothers or sisters who had a huge falling out several years ago and haven’t spoken to each other since. However, the relationship of two estranged siblings doesn’t always follow this pattern. In fact, sibling estrangement can be categorised into many relationship types.

Even siblings who maintain their relationship by talking regularly or sending birthday cards can still feel estranged from one another. This is according to Jeanne Safer, author of several books on sibling relationships, including Cain’s Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy and Regret and The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling.

Below, Safer explains the six main relationship types seen in siblings who have gone through some level of estrangement, also known as the scale of separation…

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Sibling estrangement: 6 main relationship types

1. The chinks-in-the-armour siblings: 

You’ve had your fallouts but something has brought you together – personal growth or the death of a parent. Moments of mutual goodwill have meant there’s more warmth between you and you can envisage a future where you enjoy each other’s company.

2. The by-proxy siblings: 

You wish you were closer, but are afraid to raise the subject of your difficult relationship. You solution is to approach each other tentatively through a proxy, usually a child. If your child gets on well with your sister’s child, for example, sharing common ground can make it easier to start talking properly again.

3. The cool civillity siblings: 

You talk (or, more likely, text or email) but you’re not particularly comfortable in each other’s company; it’s intimacy that’s lacking. Even though you might like to have a closer relationship, neither of you is willing to make the effort required to do that.Is it pride that’s stopping you? Or the fear of being rejected?

4. The going-through-the-motions siblings: 

Of all the relationship types, this is the most common kind of sibling estrangement – you send each other birthday cards, but on the other hand you never know what to say face-to-face. You don’t know that much about each other’s lives, but you don’t really care either. You’re not friends, but you’re also not enemies.

5. The weddings and funerals siblings: 

You meet only on these important family occasions, and tend to make sure you’re never left alone with each other. At best, meetings can be tense, at worst, they’re hostile.

6. Total alienation siblings: 

With this form of estrangement, you have erased your siblings from your mind. You have no desire to engage with them, and if you knew they’d be at a family event, you’d deliberately avoid it. Don’t assume this is the worst type of relationship though – for some people it’s actually the healthiest way to co-exist.

For more from Jeanne Safer, visit jeannesaferphd.com.

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